Writings / Conclusions

As we approach the conclusion of Bereishit an episode that we believed was resolved, returns.

And when Yosef's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, 'Yosef will perhaps hate us, and will certainly pay us back for all the evil we did to him.

Despite all the years that had passed, the brothers still did not trust Yosef, and felt that he harbored ill will toward them for the pain they had caused him. While we recognize the enormity of the outrage they had perpetrated, we would have hoped that after all these years they would have become reconciled.

The text continues:

And they sent a messenger to Yosef, saying, 'Your father did command before he died, saying, So shall you say to Yosef: Forgive, I beg you now, the trespass of your brothers, and their sin; for they did to you evil; and now, we beg you, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.' And Yosef wept when they spoke to him. And his brothers also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we are your servants.

The description is tragic. The brothers feel that they must offer themselves as slaves, apparently fearing an even more sinister fate awaited them and that they deserved slavery. Moreover, according to the Talmud Ya'akov had never uttered the words his sons attributed to him, and did not instruct his children to implore Yosef to forgive them. The brothers "invented" Ya'akov's deathbed speech; they lied out of fear.

"Your father commanded": they changed (lied) for the sake of peace, for Ya'akov had not commanded them thus, for he did not suspect Yosef. (Rashi on Bereishit 50:16)

While the ethics of truth and lies is certainly a subject for debate, apparently the brothers saw this as a case of life and death, and lied to save their lives. They feared that Yosef had been biding his time all those years, waiting for the opportunity to kill them and have his revenge.

And Yosef said to them, Fear not; for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore do not fear; I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them.

Yosef placates them and the issue is put to rest; nonetheless, we sense something is missing. Had Yosef wanted to kill them, he could have done so years earlier. Had he wanted to enslave them he could have had them shackled as soon as they arrived in Egypt years before. Our understanding is that Yosef acted magnanimously in his relationship with his brothers: He cared for them, provided them land and food, and took responsibility for all of their needs. Why was there so much fear and distrust? The answer lies in the intricacy of the relationship that unfolded years earlier, when they confront one another for the first time in Egypt. That encounter leaves us with a number of questions regarding Yosef's behavior and strategy. From the moment that Yosef sets eyes on his brothers who have come seeking food, he torments them and puts them through an emotional roller-coaster ride. Does he have a plan, or is he subject to capricious mood swings? Is it simply revenge that he seeks? There are a number of approaches found in the commentaries to this question. Apparently, the first to articulate the question was the Ramban, whose question is of a similar nature: Why, despite ample opportunity, does Yosef never attempt to contact his father? When we consider their special relationship, the mutual love, and the long years of grief their separation caused them both, the question seems even more pointed. Interestingly, the Ramban allows that a desire for revenge on Yosef's part would be understandable, had it not been for the fact that this would necessarily cause his father such terrible suffering. The Ramban answers, instead, that it was Yosef's dreams which motivated him. He knew that the dreams must come true; he accepted his fate and waited for them to unfold. When the brothers come and prostrate themselves before him, Yosef sees how close the first dream is to fruition. He devises a plot to have Binyamin come and bow as well, which will complete the first dream. Thus, when Yosef finally reveals himself to his brothers, he is described as being unable to contain himself any longer:

Then Yosef could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. (Genesis 45:1)

Apparently Yosef had wanted to hold out a bit more, but could not. What was he after? Yosef wanted the second dream to be realized, to complete the entire cycle, as it were, but he was unable to hold back any further.

Other commentaries are uncomfortable with this approach: Dreams are in the realm of God, whereas man's mandate is to do that which is ethical. Neither revenge nor self-fulfilling prophecies motivate Yosef's behavior toward his brothers. Rather, Yosef's sole desire is to rehabilitate his brothers and to lead them, even force them, to repent for the inequities perpetrated against him.

In order to fully appreciate Yosef's plan, let us consider the details of his behavior.


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When the brothers arrive in Egypt, the text informs us that Yosef remembers the dreams; this would support the Ramban's approach. The narrative then recounts how Yosef accuses the brothers of being spies.

And Yosef knew his brothers, but they knew not him. And Yosef remembered the dreams he dreamed of them, and said to them, 'You are spies; to see the nakedness of the land you have come,. And they said to him, 'No, my lord, your servants came to buy food. We are all one man's sons; we are honest men, your servants are no spies,. And he said to them, 'No, to see the nakedness of the land you have come'. And they said, 'Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.' And Yosef said to them, 'Of this (or, of him) I spoke to you, saying, You are spies'. (Genesis 42:8-14)

The text is obscure. It sounds as if Yosef actually hopes the brothers will admit they are spies on some sort of mission. One senses that had the brothers said they were searching for a brother lost years ago, Yosef would have revealed his identity immediately, satisfied that they had learned from the errors of their youth and were now repentant. Alas, the brothers insist that they are seeking out nothing other than food. Rabbinic sources insist that they were, indeed, searching for Yosef, and had therefore entered Egypt from ten different gates, but we are hard pressed to find any such admission in the text. The brothers deny seeking Yosef even when the question is put to them directly:

...and one is not. And Yosef said to them, 'Of this (or, of him) I spoke to you, saying, You are spies. (Genesis 42:8-14)

Yosef's response is telling: He places them in prison for three days, to await the return of the brother sent to fetch Binyamin.

The time in prison has the desired affect; they emerge subdued, defeated, aware of their iniquity:

And they said one to another, we are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuven answered them, saying, 'Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and you would not hear? Therefore, behold, also his blood is required'. (Genesis 42:21,22)

The prison reminds them of the sale; incarceration and loss of their basic liberties reminds them of the brother they sold. Moreover, the same word is used interchangeably for prison and pit (37:24, 40:15). This ironic use of language is probably not lost on the brothers, and helps heighten their existential awareness, and deepen their crisis. They now know what their brother experienced - not in an abstract or theoretical way, but practically, physically, viscerally. Can we possibly imagine that Yosef merely sought revenge? Certainly, had revenge been his motive, he had no reason to release them. A person seeking revenge would have said let them spend some twenty years in prison in order to appreciate the full impact of the experience. Yosef could have subjected them to any sort of unpleasantness he chose, but they were incarcerated, and nothing more, for three days.

Another subtlety should not go unnoticed: Originally, all were to remain and one return to Canaan for Binyamin, but Yosef changes the plan and has one remain behind while nine leave. This was probably not lost on the brothers either: the last time this happened was when Yosef was sold. He was left behind while the other nine went home.

And Yosef said to them the third day, 'This do, and live; for I fear God. If you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in the house of your prison; you go, carry grain for the famine of your houses. But bring your youngest brother to me; so shall your words be verified, and you shall not die. And they did so. (Genesis 42:18-20)

On their way back home, the brothers probably do think of Yosef, and the error of their ways. By his next action we see that Yosef does not allow them to lose that thought:

Then Yosef commanded to fill their sacks with grain, and to restore every man's money into his sack, and to give them provision for the way; and thus did he to them. And they loaded their donkeys with the grain, and departed from there. And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey provender in the inn, he saw his money; for, behold, it was in his sack's mouth. And he said to his brothers, My money is restored; and, lo, it is in my sack; and their heart failed them, and they were afraid, saying one to another, What is this that God has done to us? (Genesis 42:25-28)

Presumably, the last time the brothers had ill-gotten money in their hands was as a result of the sale of Yosef. The money they received was surely perceived as blood money. Now, years later, seeing this money in their bags, knowing that it was not rightfully theirs, must have dredged up that same sinking feeling.

If revenge was his motive, it would have been incongruous to have returned the money. If it is the dreams that inspire Yosef, then again the money is unrelated. Apparently Yosef is trying to create a cathartic experience, to have the brothers relive elements of the sale so that they may truly and fully repent.

We see this theme repeated when the brothers return with Binyamin. Yosef has them all sit to dine. The Egyptians exit, as does Yosef, leaving the brothers alone to break bread:

And they served him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright, and the youngest according to his youth; and the men looked at one another in amazement.(Genesis 43:32,33)

The reason for the brothers' amazement was the precise seating arrangement. Yet again there may be a subtext: Prior to the sale, while Yosef languished in the pit, the brothers sat and ate bread!

And it came to pass, when Yosef came to his brothers, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, his coat of colors that was on him. And they took him, and threw him into a pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing gum, balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. (Genesis 37:23:25)

Now in Egypt, having returned the illicit money, the brothers sit and are bidden to eat bread, in seeming reversal of the events of the sale, when they first ate bread and later received the money. Here, too, neither dreams nor revenge would explain this behavior. All the brothers, including Binyamin, had bowed to Yosef prior to this meal, fulfilling the first dream. What could Yosef hope to accomplish by having them break bread at this point? Apparently, he wants them to relive the horrific meal they ate when Yosef's screams could be heard in the background. This time, Yosef again weeps, but he muffles the sound (v. 30).

The brothers begin their journey home. They believe their terrible ordeal has come to an end: Soon they will be back in the Promised Land, reunited with their father. The family will soon be whole again. Of course, deep inside they know that someone is missing, and Yosef makes sure they don't forget. Again, he returns their money, and has his royal goblet placed in Binyamin's bag. While this has nothing to do directly with the sale it may relate to events which serve as the background for the sale.

Yosef's stewards accost them, accusing them of treachery and mean-spiritedness. Their bags are searched. They feel helpless and humiliated. A scene from their childhood must now come to mind: On their way to their ancestral homeland for the very first time, they are caught on the road, their bags searched. In that episode, it was their own grandfather Lavan who was the perpetrator, and Rachel who was the culprit. The stage was now set for the brothers to turn their backs on Binyamin, to accuse him of the crime and forsake him in order to save themselves. It would have been so easy to theorize that he, like his mother, had "sticky fingers" and could not resist taking what was not his.

This is the moment of truth. Will the brothers display fidelity to their brother ? the son of Rachel ? or abandon him as they did Yosef all those years before?

Yosef, in his wisdom, had been hard at work behind the scenes, almost assuring the proper conclusion. Rachel was no thief. Stealing her father's idols was heroic, reminiscent of the iconoclasm of Avraham. Furthermore, by this point each of the brothers has now already twice experienced the bizarre feeling of finding something in their own bags which they knew they had not placed there. Had Yosef not set the stage in this manner, perhaps they would have more readily accused Binyamin. They must have considered that the strange Egyptian prince seated them with precision, each in his own place according to age, at that meal in the palace. He knew who each one was; he could have placed the cup in the bag of the youngest.

The brothers rally around Binyamin, son of Rachel. They will not abandon him. It is at this point that Yosef breaks down and reveals himself.

Then Yosef could not restrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, 'Cause every man to go out from me.' And there stood no man with him, while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians and the house of Par'oh heard. And Yosef said to his brothers, 'I am Yosef; does my father still live?' And his brothers could not answer him; for they were troubled by his presence.

The realization that this was Yosef terrified the brothers. They could not speak. Yosef seems swept up in uncontrollable emotions. What more, then, must be accomplished? Had he been able to control himself, what would have been his next move, the next part of the plan? If Yosef was motivated by the desire to rehabilitate his brothers, what was still missing? The text says that Yosef was unable to "restrain himself before all those who stood by him" and had them removed. He did not want them to witness the moment of his confrontation with his brothers?apparently, Yosef had a gift for "P.R." When the Egyptians are told later that Yosef's brothers have arrived, they are overjoyed to hear the news. The spin doctor has pre-empted the need to correct a bad first impression.

When Yosef confronts his brothers he says only five words (in Hebrew): Ani Yosef; ha'od avi hai? "I am Yosef; does my father still live"?

The brothers are shocked. Yosef had many years to rehearse these words; certainly in the days immediately prior, he knew that the confrontation was imminent. What the Torah does not reveal to us is Yosef's tone of voice. Is it sad? Full of remorse? Is he solemn? The Talmud and Midrash understand that his words were heard as an incredible chastisement:

Another comment on And Yosef said unto his brethren: Come near to me, I pray you, etc. (Genesis 44:4), R. Eleazar b. 'Azariah said: Woe to us in the day of judgment, and woe to us in the day of rebuke. Yosef was but mere flesh and blood, yet when he rebuked his brothers they could not withstand his rebuke. How much less, then, will man of flesh and blood be able to withstand the rebuke of the Holy One, blessed be He, who is Judge and Prosecutor, and who sits on the Throne of Judgment and judges every single person! (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 93:11)

Following this approach a number of commentaries see Yosef's words as being cynical and rhetorical. Yehuda had just finished pleading that Binyamin must be returned to his father, for Ya'akov loves him dearly and would die without him. To that Yosef responds, 'I am Yosef. Is my father still alive? Did he die when you took me away from him? Did you care about him then? (See Seforno and HaAmek Davar)

The brothers are rendered speechless. Their inconsistency has been hurled back at them, their iniquity placed directly in before their eyes. There is no place to hide; there is only complete humiliation.

Then, having had his word, Yosef pulls them closer and attempts reconciliation, telling them that everything was part of God's larger plan for them to have arrived in Egypt.

And Yosef said to his brothers, 'Come near me, I beg you.' And they came near. And he said, 'I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years has the famine been in the land; and yet there are five years, when there shall neither be plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

Now we can return to the brothers' fear when Ya'akov dies. The brothers fully understood Yosef's rebuke "I am Yosef; does my father yet live?" Yosef focused not on the suffering he himself endured at their hands, but on their father's pain and heartbreak. When he uttered those five words, he was saying "I understand that you hated me ? but how can you have been so heartless to your father"?

Prior to Yosef's rebuke, the brothers had offered themselves as slaves. Yosef rejected the offer. They understood that when Yosef said "I am Yosef ? is my father still alive?" he also meant: "I would not behave as you did and take revenge and hurt my father."

Now Ya'akov is dead, so they again offer themselves as slaves. Now, nothing holds Yosef back from exacting his revenge. His father will no longer suffer if the sons hate one another, betray one another, abandon one another. The real tragedy , then, is that while Yosef was clearly motivated by a desire for his brothers to do Teshuva, to repent, they perceived him as petty and vengeful.

Despite Yosef's various sincere attempts at reconciliation, there is one thing we find lacking in Yosef's words. He never says, "I forgive you". Rather, he speaks of God having a plan and he and the brothers being players in that plan ? but he never offers his forgiveness, and perhaps it was the absence of the forgiveness which frightened the brothers, and caused them never to feel completely comfortable with Yosef.

Rabbenu Bachya cites the famous teaching that the ten martyrs are seen as a recompense for the sale of Yosef. This theme is found in the Midrash and has entered into the liturgy of Yom Kippur. Rabbenu Bachya asks why there were ten martyrs, if only nine brothers were involved in the sale. Binyamin was at home, Yosef was a victim, and Reuven left prior to the sale. He suggests that Yosef had some responsibility for his own plight, having caused the enmity at home, and therefore atonement for his sins is exacted by the death of a martyr. Alternatively he suggests that Reuven accounts for the tenth martyr, as a punishment for Reuven's own peccadillo.

Perhaps we can suggest a different answer: Yosef himself was the tenth protagonist because he never forgave his brothers completely. He, too, bore guilt. Had he managed to control himself longer, perhaps he would have been able to arrive at a point of complete reconciliation. Yet we see that the brothers and Yosef lived in Egypt together many more years, and, tragically, they remained afraid of him. Scars from the sale remained, unhealed, and later generations experienced the wrath of those unhealed scars of an incomplete family.